On Labor Day: How to plan a mini-road trip to mark Pennsylvania’s worker history

By: - September 7, 2020 6:30 am

A strike leader directs workers during the 1877 railroad strike in Pittsburgh. (Library of Congress)

Pennsylvanians will enjoy an extra day of rest from their working lives during another Labor Day celebration this weekend — but workers of the world unite on the first of May, not the first Monday of September.

The American holiday was first established in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland in the midst of a Chicago railroad strike on the early September date. That’s as opposed to the more revolutionary, and deadly, origins of international May 1 celebrations.

Even if the exact date was established to launder away associations with anarchist rabble, America’s unions had to deal with their fair share of violence and adversity to earn working conditions that so many now take for granted — like an eight-hour work day or basic workplace safety regulations.

So as you enjoy one last summer BBQ or lake trip, here are four stories from Pennsylvania’s vivid labor history to honor the long path to workers’ rights.

Cordwainers Trial

While big strikes bring to mind steel and coal, Pennsylvania’s first major labor battle actually came far earlier, when the country was in its infancy. 

The fight between workers and their bosses can be seen at an 1806 trial in Philadelphia of eight journeymen, according to Patrick Grubbs, a lecturer at Northampton County Community College and a Ph.D. student in history who’s studied the matter.

As America grew, Philadelphia’s master shoemakers — or cordwainers — began to head south to expand their businesses, taking orders from Georgia and Virginia as well as locally.

Originally, journeymen shoemakers — those who didn’t have the experience to run their own shop and who worked under masters — agreed to the extra work, Grubbs said.

However, as the orders picked up, they were forced to make more and more shoes for less pay. So they decided to go on strike, according to Grubbs.

For eight weeks in the fall of 1805, they didn’t work. Then a grand jury indicted them for conspiracy.

In March 1806, the eight journeymen went on trial. Their lawyers borrowed the rhetoric of the revolution to argue that the workers had a right to stand up to their masters’ tyranny. 

The bosses argued that by English common law, the workers were colluding to raise prices. They added that encouraging such behavior could lead to civil strife.

The judge also lobbied the jury on the bosses’ argument. The jury found the journeymen guilty, and they were fined $8 each — or about five days’ pay.

Grubbs added it showed a wider divide between visions for the nation, and set a precedent for the legal battles between workers and their bosses.

“This is actually the first major moment in American history where we might see what we consider organized labor against industry,” he said.

If you go: Grubbs said he’s been unable to discover exactly where the trial was held, but you could consider this first struggle as you take in Philadelphia’s Labor Day Parade, hosted by the Sheet Metal Workers, on Monday. 

A pre-parade rally starts at 9:15 at 1301 South Columbus Blvd.. The march to Penn’s Landing begins at 10 a.m., where a family festival will continue until 2 p.m.

Avondale Mine Disaster

As the Industrial Revolution took off, and steam replaced muscle power, coal became a hot commodity.

This was especially the case with anthracite coal, according to Jim Young, an emeritus professor of history at Edinboro University in Erie County and treasurer of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society.

“It was the coal [that] once you got it started burning, it burned longer and hotter than anything else,” Young told the Capital-Star.

Anthracite could be found in massive quantities throughout northeastern Pennsylvania, especially in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Schuylkill, and Carbon counties.

The area flooded with immigrants, first from Wales, then Ireland. They went to work in mines throughout the region to dig up coal.

Conditions were unsafe, Young said, as best exemplified by Luzerne County’s Avondale Mine Disaster in 1869.

In April of that year, the state General Assembly passed a mine safety law that increased ventilation requirements. However, it only applied to Schuylkill County.

Five months later, on Sept. 6, 1869, a fire broke out at the Avondale mine, about nine miles southwest of Wilkes-Barre.

The fire blocked the only exit from the mine, and the blaze quickly consumed the oxygen. By the time rescuers could safely enter the mine, 108 workers — including children — lay dead.

Their deaths inspired the General Assembly to pass a new mine safety law in 1870, mandating mines have multiple exits and expanding ventilation requirements.

But the disaster also inspired further organizing. Local workers had already begun to join the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, a union that engaged in a series of running battles with coal barons for better conditions over the next decade.

If you go: A state plaque honoring the workers who perished in the fire is located on U.S. Route 11 near the junction with PA 29 in Plymouth.

The Pennsylvania Labor History Society, meanwhile, is holding an event to honor the 150th anniversary of the fire next Saturday, Sept. 7 at 11:30 a.m. at the Washburn Street Cemetery in Scranton.

1877 railroad strike and the Reading massacre

In 1873, the American economy entered a deep recession, driven by the bust of overextended railroads.

As the hard times continued, railroads cut wages, even as they extended working hours, to try to keep their fares low and competitive, according to Grubbs.

This practice came to a head in 1877, with a 10 percent wage cut in the beginning of the year, followed by another proposed 10 percent cut later that summer.

Workers first went on strike in July in Martinsburg, West Virginia, against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. As word spread, strikes erupted across the country — particularly in the northeast.

Pittsburgh was the scene of much violence, including the defection of local National Guard troops to the strikers.

But Reading also stands out, Grubbs said. There, hearing of the labor strife, workers took to the streets at 8 p.m. on the night of July 22, 1877. 

“From then until midnight, they burned train cars, spiked switches, [and] halted trains,” Grubbs said. The strikers then turned to a railroad bridge across the Schuylkill River and burned it down.

The National Guard was once again called in. As they marched from the train depot into town, a crowd gathered above them, some throwing rocks.

The guardsmen then opened fire on the crowd at the intersection of Seventh and Penn streets. Ten strikers were killed.

The labor strife would continue across the country for a month and a half until President Rutherford B. Hayes called in federal troops to break the strikes.

While there was no federal action, the Baltimore and Ohio set up an employee life insurance policy in 1880 to help dead or seriously injured worker’s families.

If you go: A historical marker stands at the intersection where the incident took place. And after a 2015 refurbishment, it looks good as new.

Fannie Sellins

Being a union organizer was a dangerous trade, according to John Haer, president of the Battle of Homestead Foundation, which preserves and interprets the history of the famous 1892 clash between steel workers and Pinkertons outside Pittsburgh.

“We have calculated … within the period of the late 1880s and early 1900s, there were, just in western Pennsylvania, more than 100 activists who were killed on a pickett line” or attempting to speak, Haer told the Capital-Star.

Fannie Sellins is a prime example. A St. Louis garment worker, she started organizing her workplace and negotiated for locked-out workers. 

In 1913, she was recruited by the United Mine Workers of America and moved to Pittsburgh to help organize miners in West Virginia, according to the Foundation.

She was arrested for violating an injunction against organizing, then freed by President Woodrow Wilson. In the summer of 1919 — a time of intense racial and labor conflict – she was working a picket line for striking coal miners.

One hundred years ago, on Aug. 26, Sellins was at one of those protests when she spotted police beating a worker. When she protested, the police turned on her, shooting and killing her.

If You Go: Sellins is buried in Union Cemetery in Arnold, 22 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The UMWA still keep a monument to her on the grounds.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.